Facts and figures about water and mythology

A myth is a traditional or legendary story usually concerning some being or hero, event or natural phenomena.

Today, with clean water piped directly into our homes and largely taken for granted, it may be difficult to imagine the greater importance water held to those who fetched it daily from the riverside or village well. Deeply dependent on the local water source for their crops and animals, our ancestors had a natural reverence for those places where good, pure water emerged like magic from the depths of the earth. As a result, water has played a role in myth and sacred rites in cultures all around the globe.

In Poland and Germany, there was a belief in the water-men, or nix, and their wives. They possessed a human form, with a malevolent nature. Inhabiting lakes, rivers and ponds they tempted passers-by to go bathing, in order to drown them. Blue spots on a drowned person’s body are a sign that the nixes caused the drowning. They were held to be powerless on land and they could interact with humans and were indistinguishable from them. To have observed one of their wives on the banks of a river bleaching her laundry was an omen of rainy weather or high water.

In the Venda region of the Northern Province of South Africa, people maintain relationships with their ancestors by placating the water spirits, leaving offerings at the Phiphidi Falls and in Gubukhuvo, the pool into which the water flows below the falls. Although it is believed that these water sprites can trap their own meat, they cannot grow grain under water and therefore beer and grain are left on a sacred stone near the top of the falls to foster good relations with the ancestral spirits.
‘To rain cats and dogs’: In northern mythology, cats have great influence on the weather, and English sailors still say, ‘The cat has a gale of wind in her tail,’ signifying unusually frisky behaviour. Witches that rode upon the storms were said to assume the form of cats; and the stormy north-west wind is called the cat’s-nose in the Harz, Germany, even today. The dog is a signal of the wind, like the wolf, both animals were attendants of Odin, the storm-god. In old German pictures the wind is figured as the head of a dog or wolf, from which blasts issue. Therefore, while the cat symbolizes down-pouring rain, the dog represents strong gusts of wind which accompany a rainstorm; and a ‘rain of cats and dogs’ is a heavy rain with wind.

Many cultures associate water with women: All-mother, in an Aboriginal myth from northern Australia, arrived from the sea in the form of a rainbow serpent with children (the Ancestors) inside her. It was All-mother who made water for the Ancestors by urinating on the land, creating lakes, rivers and water holes to quench their thirst.

To the Greeks, springs were the haunts of water nymphs, elemental spirits who took the form of beautiful young girls; the original meaning of the Greek word for spring is ‘nubile maiden.’ Certain Greek springs were sacred to Hera or Aphrodite and reputed to have miraculous powers; Hera, for instance, regained virginity each year through immersion in the fountain of Kanathos.

Information from:
the Water Myths and Stories section of the International Year of Freshwater 2003
‘Sacred Springs and Other Water Lore’ website
‘Water: Sacrality and Lore Wells, Springs, Pools, Lakes’ website

Source: UNESCO Water Portal, January 2006

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